Duke of Burgundy: “The bottom line is I can’t recommend this film highly enough,” says our film critic John Seal
Duke of Burgundy: “The bottom line is I can’t recommend this film highly enough,” says our film critic John Seal

Because of a seemingly never ending litany of technical problems, I almost gave up on watching a screener of The Duke of Burgundy (opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco on Friday, Jan. 23). For whatever reason, though, I stuck with it – and I’m glad I did.

Bearing a title perhaps more appropriate to a Francophone frock flick starring Isabelle Adjani, The Duke of Burgundy takes its title from a species of butterfly. Insects – and especially Lepidoptera – are front and center in this film, though their actual bearing on the plot is minimal.

The film details an unusual relationship between two women. Cynthia (Mifune and After the Wedding’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) is an imperious, middle-aged writer and amateur entomologist, while Evelyn (Chiarra D’Anna) is a younger woman who at first appears to be Cynthia’s simpering maid – a helpmeet who just can’t seem to wash madam’s underwear properly.

Belying first impressions, their relationship is not strictly of the master-slave variety. The duo are a couple engaged in a sado-masochistic fling: Cythnia issues the (frequently unreasonable) orders, and Evelyn carries them out until compelled to utter the safe word pinastri – otherwise known as the Pine Hawk-moth, a species of butterfly. The scripted ‘game’ is repeated on a daily basis – at least, until Cynthia becomes a little bored with it all, and the safe word begins to lose its efficacy.

Though he can hardly be considered a youngster at 41, writer-director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is clearly among the best of the recent crop of British film directors. He’s in great company with Steve McQueen, Richard Ayoade and others, but his style is utterly his own, reflecting a cornucopia of film influences from the 1960s and ‘70s.

Critics have compared his work with that of David Lynch, but that’s a facile comparison at best. Other than The Elephant Man (1979), Lynch has never made a film about real, believable human beings. His characters are symbols, not people. Such is not Strickland’s style.

There are echoes here of Dario Argento (the plague of locusts in Phenomena), Harry Kümel (one of the film’s secondary characters bears a startling resemblance to Delphine Seyrig’s character in Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness), and Jean Rollin (Monica Swinn, featured in Rollin’s astonishing pirate fantasy Demoniacs and not seen on screen since 1982, was somehow tempted out of retirement by Strickland ala Suzy Kendall in Berberian).

The Duke of Burgundy is a looker, with veteran cinematographer Nicholas Knowland (who shot Simon Magus, one of the best films no-one’s ever seen) capturing the Hungarian locations in deep autumnal hues. And then there’s the film’s opening credits: truly the finest credit sequence I’ve seen in years. The late Maurice Binder would have been impressed.

Let’s not forget the music: composed by a collective known as Cat’s Eyes, the film’s score is exquisite. Strickland is also a master of sound manipulation, and he effectively uses ‘songs’ by recording artists Flying Saucer Attack and Nurse With Wound as ambient noise throughout The Duke of Burgundy.

Have I gushed sufficiently? The bottom line is I can’t recommend this film highly enough, and it’ll feature prominently on my faves of 2015 list. And if you’re still not convinced, surely you can’t resist a film featuring a credited ‘human toilet consultant’?

Footnote: no East Bay play dates are scheduled.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...